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Women’s Suffrage Movement

The womens suffrage movement, symbol of nineteenth and early twentieth century feminism then and now, is the most visible manifestation of womens emancipation, but it is merely the tip of the iceberg. Those who attacked womens suffrage were attacking much more than the idea that women as well as men should enter the polling booth.

My thesis statement is as follows: Unlike the opposition to a wider male suffrage, womens suffrage was opposed not so much because people feared the effects of women might have as voters, but because the idea of the woman voter challenged the ideal of womanhood hich formed an essential part of a social order that many saw slipping away from them. More often than not, Canadian feminists gave whole-hearted support to the belief that women had special duties.

However they insisted that these very duties made it essential that they participate fully in public life: only then could they carry out their special mission, the protection of the home, the family of women and children. There were Canadian women who took the equal rights seriously; they firmly insisted that as human beings they had a right to full citizenship, and they fought for their ights as individuals and not merely for their duty to expand their maternal role into the public sphere.

Equal rights feminism as well as maternal feminism was a reality in Canada (Brown and Cook 12). If the Persons Case marks the symbolic end of the nineteenth century womens struggle for equal rights in Canada, where did that struggle begin? It had its origins in European society out of which the new Canadian society developed. The most important institutions which formed the attitude of Canadian society toward women were those which were common to all of North America and were a direct result of the influence of he parent cultures on their Colonial offspring.

European society was patriarchal, and the patriarchal nature of that society was upheld by those twin institutional pillars, the church and the law (Brown and Cook 15) . What was the position of women under English common law at the beginning of the nineteenth century? A married woman had only a limited control over her own actions, and could not own property. Any property she brought to the marriage belonged to her husband; any wealth she acquired or produced was also his. Moreover, a mother also had no rights whatever concerning her children.

No woman could vote in nineteenth century English Canada and the married woman enjoyed no right to a voice in the law courts (in some cases women, by virtue of being property owners, could exercise the suffrage: this was true in Quebec in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries). In summary then, in Canada, at the time of the settlement, a married womans only basic legal right was to be supported by her husband with the necessities of life, according to his means (Cleverdon 38) .

Given these institutional constraints on their activities it is not difficult to nderstand that nineteenth-century Canadian women had to begin by attacking the legal structures. They could not begin by attacking the social and psychological barriers to womens freedom that the womens movement sees as central today, even though many nineteenth-century women were also concerned with these more subtle constraints. When and where did the Canadian fight for equal rights for women begin?

In Canada, the feminist movement was shaped by regional factors, although there are certain shared characteristics which manifested themselves in all areas of the country. The ovement began in Ontario, but achieved the symbolic success of equal suffrage in the prairie provinces. An active movement developed in British Columbia, but at a relatively late date. In the Maritimes it appears that only small numbers of women were involved in public activities and few were concerned with the equal rights issue.

In Quebec, French Canadian women were slow to involve themselves in any activities outside the home, and it appears that in the period before the achievement of the Dominion Suffrage, the equal rights movement in that province was in the hands of a small number of English peaking women in Montreal (Cleverdon 41). There was considerable womens activity in Ontario in the last decades of the nineteenth-century and at the beginning of this century, but most was not focused directly on equal rights.

By the 1870s the province was rich enough to support a significant number of middle-class women with sufficient leisure to devote themselves to concerns other than the immediate ones of raising a family and of managing a home. With this new-found time many women devoted themselves to a more elaborate social life. Those women who did seek other channels for their energies usually applied them to social elfare causes, thus fitting the model of maternal feminism. This activity extended from Womens Institutes to temperance organizations, and found a central focus in the 1890s with the founding of the National Council of Women (Cleverdon 44).

But as early as the 1870s there was a small band of dedicated women who saw that the equal rights issue was one of central concern. The equal rights women were also concerned about temperance or slum clearance, or the evils of prostitution, but they were distinguished from others by the fact that they saw equal civil, economic, and educational rights. Due to their efforts, other socially concerned women, notably those for whom temperance was the major social issue, would gradually see that they too had to make a positive commitment to their own rights as citizens (Cleverdon 44).

The equal rights advocates launched a Toronto suffrage society at a public meeting held in the city council chambers in 1883, but the origins of this suffrage society go back to a private club, the Toronto Womens Literary Club, founded in 1876 by Dr. Emily Howard Stowe, Canadas first woman physician. Catherine Cleverdon, in The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada, dates the beginnings of organized Canadian eminism from the founding of this club, and it is becoming commonplace to use this date as a signpost.

The date of the founding of the literary club should be seen as a convenient landmark but should in no was be taken as a rigid or definitive staring point for the whole feminist movement. However, it is likely that it does mark the first attempt to publicize the equal rights issue. The Literary clubs name was apparently chosen unintentionally, the founders believing that any overt mention of that chief feminist causes, the suffrage, would arouse too much hostility.

In its early stages, the Literary club hardly represents a movement: only a few women were involved and it was primarily an individual educational experience for those who did attend its meetings. However, the Toronto Womens Literary Club did provide the beginning for the first Canadian suffrage society, the Toronto Womens Suffrage Society, which was launched at a public meeting in March of 1883, and this society also provided the base for the development of an attempt at a national organization, the Dominion Womens Enfranchisement Association (later the Canadian suffrage Association).

But the national society appears to have been ational in name only, and remained largely a Toronto organization (Cleverdon 49). The equal rights movement in Ontario in the 1880s and 1890s seems to have been directed to two main areas, the suffrage and increased educational opportunities for women. It scored some notable successes, including the admission of women to the University of Toronto in 1886 and the establishment of the Ontario Medical College for Women in 1883. The Ontario legislatures response to the demand for political rights met with qualified success.

The right to vote for school trustees had been granted to women with the necessary property qualifications in 1850. In 1884, the legislature granted the municipal franchise to unmarried women with the necessary property qualifications. In 1872, Ontario passed the first Married Womens Property Act in Canada (Brown and Cook 18). The provincial suffrage was in fact not achieved in Ontario until 1917 and is said to have been a direct result of womens participation in the war effort. Why did the struggle take so long in Ontario?

Although Ontario was the first place in Canada in which sentiment for womens rights emerged, there is little doubt that those interested in womens rights were not able to secure mass public opinion in their favour, nor were they ble to arouse sufficient numbers of women for sufficient lengths of time. In Ontario, although the equal rights women played an essential role in providing a forum and a focus for the issue, the long time span of the movement in the province appears to have served to institutionalize non-success.

By the early 1900s, support by enlightened voices in the province had become a substitute for full citizenship and the only success of the movement elsewhere brought the issue to a final conclusion in Ontario. And perhaps it was social and economic change which finally made success inevitable. Especially important was the rapid development of womens occupational roles which took place in Ontario in the last decades of the nineteenth century, and the first years of the twentieth century.

Women established themselves in teaching; they began to enter office work and factory work, and the percentage of women gaining more education and entering professional fields increased considerably. Although they were still second-class citizens in the labour market, their increased participation did make them more visible and gave them more power. This was the case even before the xperience of World War I, during which women were employed in occupations and used in the military in great expanded areas.

From what we know of at present, the Ontario womens rights movement would appear to have been largely middle-class in origin, allied to the temperance movement and centered in Toronto. When we turn to the prairie provinces, we find a picture which is notably different in several ways. At the beginning of the is paper it was suggested that the Persons Case marks a symbolic end to the equal rights struggle in English Canada. In the context of a discussion of feminism in the Prairies, it is significant that all five of he women whose names appeared of the Persons Case suit were residents of Alberta.

Although one of the five was Nellie McClung, she was not in fact the leader of this particular struggle. The prime mover behind the Persons Case was another Alberta woman, Emily Murphy, who like Nellie McClung had been born in Ontario but had decided to move west. Emily Murphy, who had moved to Alberta in 1907, distinguished herself as a journalist and in social service work and in 1916 she was appointed police magistrate for Edmonton. This was the first such appointment to be made, not only for Canada, but in the British Empire (Thompson 302).

The equal rights movement in the Canadian prairie provinces did not follow a completely uniform pattern, the movement had an early stage phase in Manitoba, almost as early as the first stage of the movement in Ontario. In Saskatchewan and Alberta the movement really began after 1910. A major base of support for the womens movement throughout Canada was the Temperance movement, and specifically the Womens Christian Temperance Union (which began actively advocating the suffrage movement in the early 1890s in the prairies).

Given the circumstances of life in rural Canada, it is asily understandable that a specifically female temperance movement should have emerged. The temperance movement had strong links with evangelical religion and especially with the Methodist movement (Thompson 318). During the last years of the suffrage campaign in Manitoba, Nellie McClung took an active role as anyone in the movement (Strong-Boag 25).

She was interested in the suffrage not as an empty symbol, but because she saw it as a means of achieving the kinds of social changes to which she was committed: the temperance measures, the protection of women workers, an end to corruption in government, a more sane, non- iolent foreign policy (Macpherson 91). The success in Manitoba was paralleled by similar successful campaigns in the two other prairie provinces, both of which granted suffrage to women in 1916. The history of the suffrage struggle in the rest of Canada need only be summarized here.

The Dominion franchise in Canada was granted to military women and the wives of relatives in the service of 1917 (this Act was a political manoeuvre on the part of the Borden government). Full Dominion suffrage was granted in 1918. Women won the provincial franchise in British Columbia and Ontario in 1917, in Nova Scotia in 1918, in New Brunswick in 1919, in Prince Edward Island in 1922, and in Quebec in 1940. In Newfoundland, the suffrage was granted to women over 25 in 1922. In 1948, when Newfoundland became a part of Canada, women were granted the right to vote in provincial elections on an equal basis with men (Brown and Cook 34).

The right to hold office was granted on a Dominion level in 1919, but provincially, the dates of this achievement varied, from Manitoba in 1916 (with the suffrage) to New Brunswick in 1934. the right of women to hold certain offices, and specifically to sit in the Canadian Senate, was not of course clarified until the successful utcome of the Persons Case in 1929 (Brown and Cook 34). It is my hope that this brief account of the suffrage movement in Canada will lead me to explore womens history further.

For women especially, history often seems meaningless and unrelated to the real concerns of life and indeed for women it often is. Reading history can often make us feel that we never existed, or existed only as an unchanging part of the natural background. But women do have a history: the idea that weve always done the same things in the same way is merely a convenient fiction. Other disciplines (notably anthropology and sociology) are forcing historians to realize hat even natural institutions like the family are in a constant state of change, and always have been.

As women, we have been intimately involved with institutions like the family much of our history will be rediscovered through a re-examination of these institutions. With this re-examination, better interpretations of more traditional areas of historical enquiry like the suffrage movement will be possible. The revival of feminism will, hopefully, make it possible for this re-examination to take place in a way which recognizes the validity of female consciousness.

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